The fights of his life: Clemson University alumnus Tyrone Gayle epitomizes resilience
WASHINGTON D.C. — Tyrone Gayle has never shied away from a challenge — whether in the classroom, on the track, at the cancer treatment center or in the thick of our last knock-down, drag-out presidential campaign.
Last year, at the age of 28, the Jacksonville, Florida, native and Clemson University alumnus found himself in two profoundly significant battles simultaneously when, as one of Hillary Clinton’s key staffers, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer just seven months before election day.
Instead of bowing out, Gayle buckled down and prepared to fight like a Tiger.
Presidential campaigns are drawn-out, grueling affairs and this last one was particularly intense, but Gayle saw the work as a healthy distraction. The clock was ticking to the November 2016 election day following his March diagnosis. The rigid schedule and hard end date demanded his focus and he wasn’t about to quit after already dedicating a year of his life to the cause.
He never missed a step in the campaign despite undergoing 12 weeks of chemotherapy treatments and at one point even suffering cardiac arrest as a side effect of the drugs.
He absorbed each blow, gathered himself, and returned to the fight – not unlike a football team struggling to win a championship year after year.
“I was committed to seeing it through, no matter the adversity I faced,” he said. “With the fate of the republic at stake I knew there was no time to waste. I had a team, a candidate, a family and a girlfriend who were 100 percent supportive of me throughout it all.”
The dust has settled now. We all know the election result, and unfortunately Gayle’s cancer has returned after being in remission for some time. You might expect a person to fold who’s suffered such huge setbacks, but that’s not how Tyrone Gayle approaches life.
Gayle didn’t need cancer to teach him how to live, said his fiancé, Beth Foster.
“Tyrone already packed more into each day than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said. “He not only gets out of bed, he leaps out, still excited for what the day will bring. He manages to laugh — and I mean really laugh — in the darkest of times. He has made me laugh so hard I have tears streaming down my face, whether that is in the chemo room at Sloane or in the ICU at Cornell following his cardiac arrest.”
Gayle inherited his stubbornly positive outlook from his family, which set him up for success from the very beginning. His childhood in Jacksonville was idyllic, with Jamaican-born parents who instilled joy and a set of values in him that have served him very well over the years.
“I was blessed to have everything I could have ever needed growing up: two loving parents, an older sister who looked out for me, a community that supported me and schooling that prepared me to take on all of life’s opportunities,” he said.
He took to running track in high school and excelled at it, winning a state championship his sophomore year and anchoring his school’s 4-x-800 relay team his junior year. It was a passion that would eventually lead him to Clemson.
“Running provided me with a foundation of characteristics that’ve set the course for every stage and challenge of my life: patience, resiliency and a relentless focus on achieving my goals,” he said.
When it came time to find a college, he knew he wanted to keep running there, too. He also wanted to explore life beyond Florida. He took a trip to Clemson during spring break of his junior year and found just what he was looking for.
“I instantly fell in love with Clemson, its climate, school spirit and the fact that I’d be able to join the track team. Choosing to take a chance and attend Clemson — a school in which no one from my high school or hometown that I knew of was attending — was the best decision of my life.”
Gayle quickly made a name for himself at Clemson, not just among the students but with the faculty as well. David Novak, who was one of Gayle’s communication professors, said he could tell right away that Gayle would become someone notable.
“Tyrone was always one of those students whose name professors love to see on their class roster,” said Novak. “What I recall most about Tyrone is his smile, his spirit and his energy. When he walked into class, people would notice. When he spoke, he had something to say.”
Another communication professor, Shannon Holland, remembers Gayle’s immediately recognizable potential. She watched his investment in social policies and social change take shape during his junior year.
“At the time, Tyrone was not entirely certain where the future might lead,” she recalled. “That said, I always suspected that he would become a citizen and a leader who would change the world for the better. And I was right.”
Gayle picked up speed at Clemson, earned a degree in communication studies and carried his momentum directly into the high-tempo world of politics. He landed a job with a think tank and quickly parlayed that into a key position on Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine’s 2012 campaign.
He made such an impression in a few short years that he was able to get himself named one of Hillary Clinton’s earliest hires for her presidential campaign (He later played a role in her choosing Kaine as her running mate.) He moved to New York City in March 2015 to start work, a full month before her campaign was officially launched.
“Seeing a presidential campaign from start to finish is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Gayle said. “When I began, there were probably around 20 people working out of a small office in Midtown Manhattan. On election day, our campaign had over 4,500 campaign staffers across the country and about 700 or so based at the headquarters in Brooklyn where I was.”
The ultimate outcome was not a happy one for Clinton’s supporters, but if anyone could take the hit it was Gayle.
Unsurprisingly, he is measured and retrospective about the loss. He knows there are even bigger things to lose than presidential elections.
“Losing is never easy, especially when so much was on the line,” he said. “I’m not quite sure I will ever truly and completely get over a loss like that. It’s taken a lot of reflection, rest and resilience to put my head down and jump back into the political fray. It has been challenging for all the thousands of us who worked night and day to get Hillary Clinton elected.”
Following the election loss on Nov. 8, he tried to drown his sorrows by spending his birthday weekend at Clemson watching the Tigers play the Pittsburg Panthers on Nov. 12. The Tigers lost 43-42.
“That was another tough blow,” he laughed.
It had been a rough stretch, but his remarkable positivity never left him. In his mind, every step he got knocked back was an opportunity to take two steps forward. His charisma touched everyone, including Hillary Clinton.
“Tyrone was with my campaign from the very beginning,” she said. “It was clear from the outset that he was a bright, passionate and compassionate young man. Watching him throughout the campaign was nothing short of inspiring.
“No matter the personal battles he was facing, he was always out there on the front lines fighting for what he believed in. I was very proud to have Tyrone on my team. I have no doubt that he has a bright future ahead, one that will continue to inspire all of us while fighting for our values.”
A few weeks after the Tigers’ loss to the Panthers Gayle took a much-deserved vacation to South Africa with then-girlfriend Foster. The two met by chance while he was working for Kaine’s Senate run and she for Barack Obama’s re-election. Their immediate attraction ignited a relationship that somehow blossomed through the madness of it all.
“Tyrone’s big heart is one of the first things that attracted me to him,” said Foster. “He invests a great deal in his friendships, which is all the more remarkable considering he has a million friends. He remembers birthdays, important anniversaries, first days of new jobs. I don’t know how he keeps it all straight. Even healthy, Tyrone did not take a single day for granted. He has a zest for life that is unparalleled.”
A few days after Christmas, he asked her to marry him.
“She is my rock and my life would be dramatically unfulfilled without her in it,” he said. “I am lucky to have her — a partner, a travel buddy, fellow Clemson football fanatic and my best friend.”
It was one of the happiest days of their lives, less than two months after the election loss.
A few weeks after that, on Jan. 9, the newly engaged couple was in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, when Clemson defeated Alabama to win their second National Championship.
Now, he’s tossed his hat right back into the political ring. He currently is the press secretary and spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Gayle and Foster continue to look to the future despite having to deal with the relapse of his cancer. They’re planning their wedding for May 2018.
“I won’t pretend it isn’t hard… watching someone you love suffer is heart-wrenching,” said Foster. “It’s like a daily punch in the gut. But I always tell people that I get through it because of Tyrone. He still manages to care for others and to not lose sight of his ultimate goal of making this country a better place. If he can do it, then I certainly have no excuse. He is my inspiration.”
Gayle said his goals include working to get healthy, maintaining fulfilling relationships with friends, being a good husband and continuing to find work that is rewarding and inspiring.
To that end, he’s all in.
“While I breathe, I hope,” he said, quoting the state motto spoken by South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn at Gayle’s 2010 Clemson graduation, which he’s taken to heart ever since.
“I beat cancer once and will beat it again,” he said.
Who can doubt him? His beloved Clemson Tigers have proven that dogged resilience pays off and even the most intimidating of foes can be defeated. Tyrone Gayle will keep moving the ball forward like he always has — step by step — until he wins.
Editor’s note: Tyrone Gayle would like to point out that cancer does not discriminate by race, religion, gender nor creed. When it comes to colon cancer, screening is key, and, unfortunately, the disease is becoming more common in young people like him, particularly African-American men. He urges anyone with a family history of the illness or who may be experiencing stomach pain or demonstrating other signs of disease to get a colonoscopy.